'Molecular surgery' gives pain-free operations © Getty Images

‘Molecular surgery’ gives pain-free operations

The new technique uses electric currents to reshape tissue with no incisions.

Fear the surgeon’s knife? A cutting-edge technique could banish the scalpel for good – at least for certain operations. Dubbed ‘molecular surgery’, the tech has been developed for procedures that involve reshaping tissue.

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Usually, this kind of surgery involves cutting and suturing, which is painful and leaves scars. Now, researchers at Occidental College in Los Angeles and the University of California, Irvine, have reshaped tissue with no incisions or scarring, and minimal recovery time.

It could be useful for cosmetic surgery – such as reshaping a nose or ear – but also for problems such as immobile joints and poor eyesight.

'Nano tweezers' could help to diagnose and treat cancer © Tyler Irving/U of T Engineering News

“We envision this new technique as a low-cost … procedure done under local anaesthesia,” said Dr Michael Hill, one of the project’s principal investigators. “The whole process would take about five minutes.”

So far, the researchers have focused on cartilage – a tough connective tissue that’s found throughout the body. By passing electric current through the cartilage, the scientists found that they could make it flexible, while avoiding damage to the tissue.

The technique works by ‘electrolysing’ the water inside the cartilage – splitting water molecules into hydrogen and oxygen gases. The creation of charged hydrogen atoms (protons) alters the electric charge inside the cartilage in such a way that the tissue becomes malleable.

The team tested their process on a rabbit, using a 3D-printed mould to bend one of the rabbit’s ears into a new shape. By inserting tiny ‘microneedle’ electrodes into the ear, and pulsing current through, they could soften the cartilage at the bend, and then allow it to harden into its new shape – all without pain or scarring.

Next, the researchers are looking into other types of tissue, such as tendons and the cornea in the eye. By painting electrodes onto a contact lens, it might be possible to temporarily soften the cornea and change its curvature, correcting vision problems.


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